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Saturday, March 10, 2012
Vegas winner best bet to win title?

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson
Five-time champ Jimmie Johnson won twice at Las Vegas in years that he won the title (2007 and '10).

LAS VEGAS -- When it comes to racing, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.

What a driver does here often goes a long way toward revealing what he will do for the season.

Five of the 14 winners at Las Vegas Motor Speedway went on to win the championship that season. Three others finished as the championship runner-up, and 10 of the 14 winners ended the season in the top five in the Sprint Cup standings.

Carl Edwards
A Vegas win in 2011 didn't translate into a Cup title for Carl Edwards, who lost the championship to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker.

Only twice has the Las Vegas winner failed to end the season in the top 10. One was 2002 winner Sterling Marlin, who was leading the standings after 26 races but missed the last seven events with a neck injury. The other was 2009 winner Kyle Busch, who missed making the Chase by one spot.

If you aren't good here, it may be a long year. Sunday is the first Cup race of the season on a 1.5-mile oval, a so-called "cookie-cutter" track, although the term is misleading. Some have steep banking, some are relatively flat, some are wide and sweeping, some are narrow and gnarly. But teams need to be strong on most of them to have a strong season.

The schedule has 11 of 36 races on these intermediate tracks of the same length, including five of 10 Chase events. Get it done on these tracks or forget about winning the title.

"Early in the year you go to a lot of different types of 1.5-mile race tracks," Kevin Harvick said Friday. "But no matter what type it is, you apply the same characteristics. So this is an important weekend to see where you are at on this particular style of track."

Tony Stewart won the 2011 Cup crown without winning at Vegas, but he should have. A pit-road penalty (dragging an air hose) cost him the victory.

"This place probably was the strongest race we had last year," Stewart said Friday. "We had a car that just was dominant. We let it get away from us. It was real disappointing to lose it with a penalty."

And who won that day? Carl Edwards, who tied Stewart in championship points (a first in NASCAR history), but lost the title because Stewart had more victories.

"This race is important to everyone in the garage," Edwards said Friday. "You get to go out and kind of see what you've got and what you've been working on. It gives us a little insight into who is strong at these type of racetracks for the whole year."

Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne won the pole for Sunday's Cup race at Vegas with a track-record lap of 190.456 mph.

Edwards' last victory was at Vegas last season, but he finished in the top five in 10 of 11 races on 1.5-mile ovals.

Harvick finished third in the championship last year but might have fared better if the team's 1.5-mile results were more consistent. He won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte but had only one other top-5 on the 1.5-mile tracks.

"Our 1.5-mile stuff is obviously the most important thing because there are so many races on them," said Harvick, who starts third Sunday. "This track is a little bit different now than it used to be because it is pretty rough. It holds on to its speed pretty well."

The cars are faster than ever this weekend at LVMS. Kasey Kahne won the pole with a track-record lap of 190.456 mph. The racing surface was reconfigured in 2007 to add banking, but it didn't change the fact that success here means success later.

In the five races under the new configuration, Jimmie Johnson won twice at Vegas in years he won the title (2007 and '10), and Edwards won twice in years he was the championship runner-up (2008 and '11).

Even for guys who haven't finished in the top five in the standings, racing well here is a good omen. Ryan Newman's best finish in the standings was sixth in three seasons -- 2002, '03 and '05. All three years he finished in the top 10 at Las Vegas.

"This is truly a good litmus test of what to expect the rest of the season," Newman said Saturday. "It proves which teams have their programs together from an aerodynamic standpoint and a setups standpoint. It shows if you are shined up enough to be a contender."